It is also a location in which the use and dealing of heroin has been concentrated for more than 2 decades, littered with syringes, dealers brazenly hawking their poison around the bustling food and grocery precinct, locals are out of patience.
However, those trying to cope with the ongoing drug epidemic are on the verge of seeking the State Governments go ahead for Melbourne’s first SIS, Safe Injecting Site.
In 2013, researchers from the respected Burnet Institute completed a study that pointed to an SIS as a relevant resolution to this appalling situation. The ‘North Richmond Public Injecting Impact Study’ was undertaken in collaboration with the Yarra Drug and Health Forum, City of Yarra and North Richmond Community Health Centre. The research suggested that setting up a facility offering 24-hour access to sterile injecting equipment would be one of the areas only hopes of quelling the ongoing “widespread, frequent and highly visible” illicit drug use.
Greg Denham, the Executive Officer for The Yarra Drug and Health Forum, who commissioned Burnet’s first feasibility study, says that in his experience, most of the community supports the introduction of an injecting facility.
“I have spoken to numerous people living and working in the Richmond area and haven’t met one person opposed to the idea, Mr Denham said. “The majority of people in the community want to try something that reduces the visible impact of injecting drug use, and I believe that the evidence in Sydney shows that an injecting facility will help. We anticipate that such a facility will reduce visible public injecting and ‘nuisance’ type behaviour and improve significantly the public amenity. No one wants to see people shooting up and needles and syringes left in parks and streets.”
During the period that the Burnet Institute’s research was undertaken – 2010-2012 – the area witnessed a 400 percent increase in the number of needles collected from disposal units and street-sweep operations. In the local government area the City of Yarra, of which Richmond is part, 1550 syringes were collected each month from public syringe disposal bins.
With ambulance callouts for heroin overdoses more than 1.5 times higher than for other Melbourne areas in the period between 2011 and 2012 – a total of 336 overdoses – drug-related arrests in Richmond were 3 times higher than the state average, it’s clear something needs to be done.
In its latest push to set up an SIS, Yarra Council is according to some ‘angering local traders and residents.” According to News Corp staffer Andrew Jefferson, “they are tired of junkies littering Richmond’s streets with discarded syringes.”
Yarra Council, the Yarra Drug and Health Forum, the Greens, the Australian Sex Party, and the Australian Medical Association are keen for the State Government to follow NSW’s lead by sanctioning a six-month trial of an SIS.
The head of Burnet Institute’s Alcohol and Drugs group Professor Paul Dietze says there is clear evidence worldwide that SISs are effective in reducing drug related harms. What we now need to ascertain is the benefit (or otherwise) in locating a facility in Richmond, determining how to successfully implement the program in this community.
“It might not be the case that a supervised injecting facility is required, but we do know these facilities are valuable in high drug use areas. We just need to find out the needs of the various people involved, the people using drugs, retailers, police and the wider community in the area so clear recommendations can be made to council or State Government to make a response,” Professor Dietze said. “If this needs analysis recommends that a supervised injecting facility is the way forward, we then need to determine what that facility might look like, how it will operate. Research indicates that, overall, the community is supportive of harm reduction interventions of this sort,” he added. Harm reduction is based on a hierarchy of needs that equally well supports efforts towards abstinence alongside other public health goals. But for those who continue to use drugs, for whatever reason, we need to offer comprehensive harm reduction services to keep them healthy and protect society from drug-related harm.
Local police fear the arrival of the state’s first injecting room might attract more dealers to the area, keen to feed the habit of desperate addicts, leading to an increase in crime. Police say more than half of the dealers caught in Richmond come from outside the area.
A local business representative has likened the problem to a zombie plague. “It’s getting worse, not better,” Meca Ho said. “People are too scared to walk down Victoria St because they don’t feel safe, we don’t need a shop attracting more.”
“An injecting room will just encourage more drug use, not less,” Mr Ho said.
A long serving police inspector concedes that containing the drug problem in Richmond is an uphill-battle, but one police remain committed to winning. Drug addicts have turned sections of Melbourne’s biggest public housing estate into makeshift shooting galleries.
Inspector Bernie Edwards says the drug problem is an ongoing fight.
“People talk about adopting a zero-tolerance approach, but that just doesn’t work,” Inspector Edwards said. “You can’t win by just locking people up. We need to try and break that cycle of use.”
There is no simple answer to the drug use problem in the area, Inspector Edwards says a written protocol prevents police from taking a direct approach to addicts using the North Richmond Community Health Centre.
Drug users access the facility for clean needles, however many of them shoot up heroin in nearby car parks and lanes.
“The Community Centre is a no-go zone for police.” Inspector Edwards said. “For police it’s all about preventing the spread of blood-borne viruses. I could put a circle of police around the Community Centre tomorrow but that defeats the purpose of what it’s there for.”
He said police conducted regular operations in Richmond to detect illegal drug activity and associated crime, and admitted it was not ideal having people shooting up in streets.
“Would I want an injecting room next to my house? I wouldn’t,” he said. “Supervised injecting rooms breach the law, so any move to establish one will need to be government policy.”
This isn’t the first time an SIS has been proposed for the area, the Victorian parliament rejected the idea in 2011. In a bid to control its heroin problem, the Yarra Council put forward the idea of a Kings Cross style SIS, voting in favour of an injecting room. Supporters suggested the injecting room in Sydney’s Kings Cross was successfully managing drug use, taking the problem of the streets.
The council’s proposal needed the support of the State Government, which quickly vetoed the plan.
Then Victorian Premier , Ted Baillieu said “We’ve got to get the message through to young people that dabbling in drugs is dangerous and can and does ruin lives, and we’re not going to give up.”
UPDATE! Victoria’s premier Daniel Andrews has dismissed calls for the Richmond trial of an SIS, saying that his government wouldn’t break an election promise by changing drug laws. However Mr Andres conceded that there was a desperate need for ‘new thinking’ on the problem of drug use in the state.
“We think there are further supports, funding and a greater focus on the problem,” Mr Andrews said. “There are other things we can do without taking that very big step of providing supervised injecting sites.”
Doctors Call For Supervised Injecting Site
The Victorian branch of the Australian Medical Association – AMA – wants a trial of safe injecting rooms in Melbourne. AMA Victoria’s president Stephen Parnis says they would save lives by reducing the number of drug overdoses and cut the number of ambulance call-outs and hospital admissions.
“Measures like this can prevent overdose and help control the spread of Hepatitis C, which is of increasingly high prevalence amongst Victorian drug-users,” Dr Parnis said. “Supervised injecting facilities have worked to reduce harm in Sydney’s Kings Cross and we’re hopeful they can do the same in Melbourne’s drug hotspots.”
Under a trial, drug-users would get sterile injecting equipment and a way to safely dispose of it, help in case of an overdose, and medical, rehabilitation and counselling services.
“Our harm reduction priorities are focussed in other areas, including the significant expansion of pharmacotherapy services, with the doubling of the budget and expanding needle syringe programs in areas of particular need,” a Victorian Government spokesperson said.
The Victorian Alcohol and Drug Association’s Sam Biondo says that governments are risk-averse.
“They feel that if the community doesn’t support it, then they will wear the backlash,” Mr Biondo said. “But what we’re seeing in many places in Victoria is there’s great support for these sorts of initiatives and the Government really does need to get real and start to reflect some of the sentiment on the ground. Certain governments have certain views about getting hard on drugs and getting hard on people that are breaking the law, but that approach has been well and truly shown to be a failure.”
Argument Still Stands
Four years on since its first attempt at securing an SIS for the area Melbourne’s Yarra City Council still firmly believes the proposition has merit. The motion, aimed at cutting the amount of drug use – and the number of drug overdoses – along the suburb’s main shopping strip of Victoria Street has once again been relegated to the too-hard-basket.
With local Victoria St traders coming out against the proposal, saying they would prefer street cameras to deal with the problem.
So do safe injecting rooms work, and who do they work for?
Paster Graham Long is from Wayside Chapel, who provide meals, changes of clothing and counselling services for homeless and disadvantaged people in Kings Cross. He says the Sydney Medically Supervised Injecting Centre has made a huge impact.
“We know that we were picking up in the order of 130 needles a day at the front of the chapel – these days if we pick up two or three we think we’re having a very bad day,” Mr Long said.
Paster Long says the injecting room looks like any other shopfront or medical centre.
“It just doesn’t stand out,” he said.
A trader directly opposite the Sydney MSIC disagreed, saying “there are always ‘people you don’t want’ hanging around outside, you have a huge honeybee effect.”
The trader – who wished to remain unnamed – claims his business has suffered 50 per cent losses since the Sydney SIS opened.
“A lot of the locals don’t like coming through here now because of the injection centre and the people it attracts.” The trader said.
Others who live and work in the area agreed, with one man saying that he saw drug deals being done nearby to the centre all the time.
However, Family Drug Support’s Tony Trimingham says the centre has made Kings Cross a more pleasant place.
“10 years ago any time of day you would have been confronted – you couldn’t sit down and have a pleasant cup of coffee without seeing somthing that would offend you,” Mr Trimingham said. “The Cross is definitely cleaner.”
Mr Trimingham says there was initially resistance from traders in Vancouver when he went over in 2000 to help set up a similar centre there. He says these same traders are now the injecting centre’s biggest supporters. Mr Trimingham started Family Drug Support after his son died of an overdose.
“Drug overdose deaths are preventable,” Mr Trimingham said.
The owner of the business opposite, though, said Richmond’s traders should do ‘everything they could do’ to fight any proposed injection centre.
Syringe Vending Machine Proposal
If history is anything to go by, the next step for those working on a solution to the inner-urban drug problem is syringe vending machines – SVMs – not quite as ostentatious as an SIS, but far less labor intensive than a manned needle exchange program.
History repeating, because this proposal – SVMs – has also been put forward before, by the same group as the Richmond SIS. The Yarra Drug and Health Forum wanted to trial the machines so people can get clean syringes as an alternative to needle exchange programs or supervised injecting rooms, the proposal was refused last year.
SVMs have been used in New South Wales since 1992 and are also being used in Queensland, the ACT, Western Australia and Tasmania, leaving Victoria as the standalone state on prohibition on the harm minimisation front.
The Salvation Army says “SVMs are a considered a key part of the public health responses in nearly all Australian jurisdictions, reducing blood borne virus transmission associated with injecting drug use. They do this by increasing access to sterile injecting equipment. They may be installed in areas where:
It is not possible to establish a staffed Needle and Syringe Program, or it’s been identified that some current injecting drug users may not otherwise access staffed needle exchange programs.
Victoria is one of the few Australian states and territories that do not utilise SVM’s within the suite of harm reduction approaches to reduce BBV transmission. Consequently there is limited access to sterile injecting equipment 24/7 across Victoria and in rural areas.”
Read more at: www.salvationarmy.org.au
The Burnet Institute report, ”North Richmond Public Injecting Impact Study” by Dr Robyn Dwyer, Professor Robert Power and Professor Paul Dietze
During the 1990s, Australia experienced a heroin “epidemic”, in which high quality, low priced heroin, imported from South East Asia, was readily available in many metropolitan, suburban and rural areas. However, since 2001, Australia has been experiencing what is being referred to as a “heroin drought”, with high grade heroin being much more difficult to access.
As a result of this, many other illicit drugs have risen and fallen in popularity to fill this void, with prescription temazepam, morphine, oxycodone, methamphetamine and cocaine all being used as a substitute. 2008 has seen a reversal of this trend, with the arrival of Afghan heroin being seen in Sydney for the first time ever. Although anecdotal evidence from illicit drug users reject the claim, some researchers assert that the potency of heroin has since been on the rise, and is nearly comparable to the purity of heroin prior to 2000.
In 2001, the Sydney Medically Supervised Injecting Centre opened in Kings Cross. It was opened on the recommendation of the Wood Royal Commission. Prior to this, several venues such as strip clubs or brothels in Kings Cross rented out rooms to injecting drug users so that they could have a private and safe place to inject. This practice went on with unofficial approval by the police, as it kept injecting drug use off the streets and in the one area. This further allowed criminal activity to profit off illicit drug use, as many venue owners would sell rooms and drugs. The Wood Royal Commission identified that while there were benefits to these illegal shooting galleries, allowing police to cooperate with illegal activities could encourage corruption, it suggested an independent medical facility to continue providing safety for the users, and safety for the public by lessening the impact of drug use on the streets, such as discarded needles or drug related deaths.
The Australian Crime Commission’s illicit drug data report for 2011–2012 was released in western Sydney on 20 May 2013 and revealed that the seizures of illegal substances during the reporting period were the largest in a decade due to record interceptions of amphetamines, cocaine and steroids. The report also stated that average strength of crystal methamphetamine doubled in most jurisdictions within a 12-month period and the majority of laboratory closures involved small “addict-based” operations :: Read the full article »»»»